Homily: “On the Canaanite Woman”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15, Year A), 2017.

We have asked God in our Collect to give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of His redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of His most holy life. The entire petition is a fitting one for today, as we are beginning today a long, mostly uninterrupted period of Sundays which focuses on the life of the Church as we savor the life of Jesus Christ and how His life, and acts, and words provide fruits for the Church’s Mission in the world and teach us how to follow daily in the blessed steps of His most holy life. Let us hear as well in our request to God an echo of our request to Him that begins every Mass—that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways. The journey of the Christian life is a journey in which we learn how to walk.

The Church today is reflecting on a portion of Saint Matthew’s Gospel from the fifteenth chapter, and inviting us to find echoes of it in a passage from the fifty-sixth chapter of the Book of the prophet Isaiah. This is the primary work of these Sundays after Pentecost with respect to Scripture—the work of mystagogy, of seeing how Jesus and His Mission was foretold in the Old Testament, and to see how these scriptures enlighten and vivify the early Church’s direct and immediate experience of Jesus Himself and their memory of Him. Undoubtedly this moment in the life of Jesus was remembered through the early Church as part of its oral tradition and ultimately written down first in the Gospel of Mark some thirty-odd years after the death of Jesus, and then brought into Matthew’s Gospel ten years after that, because of the words Jesus spoke: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It is rather shocking, indeed. And we can trust the Jesus intended these words to have an effect on the disciples.

Why can we trust this? We can trust it because throughout all the Gospels, Jesus is a teacher of prayer. Much less than being a teacher of specific prayer words—the only real example of have of that is the Our Father prayer, of course—Jesus is a teacher of prayer in the sense of relationship with God and how all things find their true fulfilment and unity in God and through God. All things relate to God and therefore reveal God, because through Him was everything made that was made.

Jesus is the true teacher of prayer who, in the Gospels, is in control at all times and knows exactly what He is doing when He does it. He sees this Canaanite women and hears her plea to have her daughter released from a demon—and immediately Jesus recognizes a teaching opportunity, and He seizes it, both to help the woman and her daughter and to edify His disciples. The Canaanite women exemplifies all the qualities that Jesus wants His disciples to have, but more importantly, to recognize and see as crucial for Mission, because He knows that they will be called upon to continue His ministry of teaching, prayer, and healing after He dies. Jesus wants His closest disciples not only to be able to live according to His pattern of holy life, but to be able to pass it on to others—which means doing it, and understanding what they are doing when they do it.

Jesus intends His life to be for the whole world, and yet He also knows that for that to happen, He must focus like a laser beam on the teaching, guidance, and coaching of His close disciples so that the Scriptures can be fulfilled whereby God’s chosen people of Israel live out a holy life available to all and in service of the salvation of all. So we used this opportunity with the Canaanite women to make the disciples aware of this tension so that when He died and they were called to continue His mission, they would know that there will always be a tension between the local and the universal, between feeding the flock in the local community and serving the needs of people outside of the worshiping community who come thirsty for righteousness and salvation.

Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit would guide the early Church into searching the Scriptures and finding in the Book of Isaiah the words, “Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain.” In our context, we can apply this teaching to remind us that Jesus intends all residents of Tazewell County to join Him on His holy Mountain providing that they join themselves to Him and hold fast His covenant. And yet the way for that to actually happen and manifest, rather than be a pleasant sounding sentiment, is for the local gathering of close disciples—the parish church in other words—to allow themselves to be pushed, guided, taught, and coached into a still deeper and still more profound understanding of Jesus and His holy life.

And so just, when He saw and heard the great humility of the Canaanite woman lived out and demonstrated, of course healed her daughter, because He wanted His disciples to know the supreme importance of humility within the Christian life, for themselves as persons but also for the Church as a whole. The Christian life has abundant fruits which are intended for all, but they only become available through humility. Humility not merely inward and internal but outward in our words and actions.

May we, brothers and sisters, bow down and kneel before the Lord as the Canaanite woman did before Jesus. Because by kneeling, we learn how to walk—how to walk in the blessed steps of Christ’s most holy life. Amen.